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New genetic study: More evidence for modern Ashkenazi Jews’ ancient Hebrew patrimony

New genetic study: More evidence for modern Ashkenazi Jews' ancient Hebrew patrimony

IsraelI hail from the so-called Ashkenazi branch of Jews, who account for the great majority of all Jews in the world today. Ashkenazis are distinguished by the historical fact that, over the last couple of thousand years or so, they propagated throughout Europe, generating and maintaining tens of thousands of distinctly Jewish communities in diverse countries spanning the entire continent. My dad was born in Lithuania; my mom’s mom came from an Eastern European region that has belonged to any one of about a half-dozen countries, depending on what particular year you happen to be talking about; and my mom’s dad grew up in Russia, near the Black Sea.

Tradition holds, though, that Ashkenazi Jews ultimately trace their origins straight back to ancient Israel, whence most Jews were expelled en masse in 70 CE by their Roman conquerors and sent skittering to all parts of the globe. (Jews who initially fled to Spain and Portugal are referred to as Sephardic. Those who took up residence in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Northern Africa are designated as Mizrahi.)

But in the late 1970s I read what was then a recent book titled The Thirteenth Tribe, written by polymath Arthur Koestler, advancing a theory that today’s Ashkenazis descend not from the Holy Land but, rather, from Khazaria, a medieval Turkic empire in the Causasus region whose royals, caught between the rock of Islam and the hard place of Christendom, chose the politically expedient course of converting to Judaism. That hypothesis has become highly politicized, with some groups holding that Ashkenazis, who constitute half of Israel’s current population, are colonialist interlopers with zero historical claim to the land of Israel.

Plausible at the time, the Khazar-origin premise has crumbled under the onslaught of modern molecular genetics. The latest volley: a study published this week in Nature Communications. The study’s senior author, Stanford geneticist Peter Underhill, PhD, works in the lab of  Carlos Bustamante, PhD, whose high-resolution techniques have highlighted the historical hopscotch of other migratory peoples.

Underhill, Bustamante and their co-authors analyzed the Y chromosome – a piece of the human genome invariably handed down father-to-son – of a set of Ashkenazi men claiming descent from Levi,  the founder of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. (Names such as Levy, Levine and Levitt, for example, bespeak a Levite heritage.)

If Ashkenazis were the spawn of Khazar royals, their DNA would show it. But those Y chromosomes were as Levantine as a levant sandwich. The same genetic “signature” popped up on every Levite sampled (as well as a significant number of non-Levite Ashkenazis), strongly implying descent from a single common ancestor who lived in the Fertile Crescent between 1,500 and 2,500 years ago. That signature is absent in the Y chromosomes of modern European non-Jewish men, and in male inhabitants of what was once Khazaria.

Yes, 2,000 years is a long time, and a fellow gets lonely. Genetic studies of mitochrondria – tiny intracellular power packs that have their own dollop of DNA and are always inherited matrilineally – have conflicted (contrast this with this) but, in combination with broader studies of entire genomes, suggest that a bit of canoodling transpired between Ashkenazi men and local European women, in particular Italian women, early in that two-millenia European sojourn.

I can relate. My wife is 100 percent Italian by heritage, and my daughter by my first marriage is half-Italian.

Previously: Caribbean genetic diversity explored by Stanford/University of Miami researchers, Stanford study investigates our most-recent common ancestors and Stanford study identifies molecular mechanism that triggers Parkinson’s
Photo by cod_gabriel

24 Responses to “ New genetic study: More evidence for modern Ashkenazi Jews’ ancient Hebrew patrimony ”

  1. Swisstoons Says:

    Interesting piece. But I believe “Levantine” refers to the Levant (Lebanon & Syria), not to the descendants of Levi.

  2. dyinglikeflies Says:

    Science and proof will not discourage those who insist todays Jews have no historical connection to the land, Jews are colonists there, ancient Jews and the Holy Temple never existed (sound crazy? Arafat said that), Jews are directly descended from monkeys (check with your friendly neighborhood Muslim preacher on that one) etc. etc. But finding out we have always had a shot with Italian girls is good to know.

  3. Bodil Zalesky Says:

    I agree with Swisstoons, this is very interesting. And also that “Levantine” has to do with “levante” (Italian) i.e. from where the sun rises (the East) as “ponente” means from where the sun sinks (the West) – but that is of course only a small detail in this text.

  4. Martin Mould Says:

    I assumed that the author used Levantine in its geographic sense (eastern Mediterranean origin), not as a misunderstood connection with Levites. It’s also intriguing that those who “accuse” Ashkenazim of Khazar ancestry point to how Slavic-Germanic we look, whereas the Khazars were/looked Turkic-Georgian.

  5. Ellie Kesselman Says:

    I am curious regarding the researchers’ choice of population sample. According to my father and grandfather, Cohans are by definition, the patrilinear descendants of Aaron the High Priest, younger brother of Moses. The second of the three, um, strata of Jews of the Diaspora were Levites, the descendants of Levi, as SwissToons said. There was nothing particularly Levantine about the Levites. They were the artistic class, and cared for the synagogue. Well, that was my understanding.

    I am glad for resolution to the Khazar origin myth. Minor issue: This word choice jarred, “If Ashkenazis were the spawn of Khazar royals, their DNA would show it.” Spawn? We’re not spawn!

    I like the map of Israel, very much. Might there be any provenance information? I’d to view more of it!

  6. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Ellie Kesselman: Aaron himself was Levite, making Kohanim a subset of that tribe. And while I admit to indulging my sense of wordplay, I meant the term “Levantine” as a geographical reference (dictionary definition: “a person who lives in or comes from the Levant”), not a cultural one. That is, Levites’ genes show that they sprang from the Levant, not the Caucasus.

    I can see how the term “spawn” could be jarring, and I assure you that I used it ironically (I’m an Ashkenazi myself).

  7. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Ellie Kesselman: I forgot to mention that if you click on the link highlighting the words “Photo by cod_gabriel” you will be directed to the page containing a larger version of the map and, among other things, an information icon (“i” in a circle) that will provide attribution guidelines.

  8. Norm Says:

    Dear Bruce,
    Perhaps I am missing something here, and I see that the Khazar theory is the primary focus here, but is it not quite as clear cut? If as you say it is true that there are those clear cut ancient DNA markers to a specific region, and this appears to be to my understanding the case, and therefore the Khazar conversion idea is void, are these not still just one aspect of the DNA markers. Back to antiquity, but as I understand it, it is unlikely that ‘purity’ will be found in DNA and that ‘other’ markers can also be present. A recent study found that European women, and hence Europeans (possibly Rome, or Northern Italy) were also present in the DNA markers of European Jews. The exact percentage is still being debated. But this intermixing of Jews and Europeans from antiquity would appear to be interesting. I also wonder, would it not also be possible for particular Arabs living in Israel/Palestine, or elsewhere, to also share some of the same ‘ancient’ DNA markers as Jewish people? Thanks again, for the very interesting article.

  9. Norm Says:

    PS – Sorry forgot to post the link to the article I read on that other study

  10. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Norm, the study discussed in the New York Times article you linked to is the one I was referring to in the second-to-last paragraph of my blog entry. There’s no contradiction here. It appears that male Hebrews mated with female Italians, and our genes tell that story. The point still stands that those males (and their Levite descendants) trace their ancestry back to ancient Israel, according to modern genetic geography. There is no question that Arabs, like the Jews a semitic people, also originated in the Levant. I’m not anything resembling a geneticist, but I would assume Jews and Arabs share all kinds of genetic features (although not the one I wrote about in the blog entry above), as they emanate from the same part of the globe.

  11. Ellie Kesselman Says:

    Thank you so much!

    I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed this post. I shared it on Quora and Twitter and elsewhere too :O)

  12. Steven Strimling Says:

    The irony is that Koestler wrote “The Thirteenth Tribe” in order to lessen antisemitism, essentially to say “You shouldn’t hat us, we’re not really Jews.” Now, the antisemites trot out his theory in order to justify their hatred of us. “That’s why we hate you. You’re colonists who stole Arab lands. The Arabs got along with real Jews, the Mizrahi.”

    Patently false, but just like the blood libels, this one won’t go away, despite the facts not supporting it.

  13. Anthony Weber-Rice Says:

    The term Levantine refers to Israel, Syria and Lebanon. It does not specially refer to the Levites and definitely does not refer to Italians. I believe that the Ashkenazim are of many different origins. I believe the Khazar theory to be one of many accurate theories explaining the origins of some Ashkenazim. I also believe that some Jews are of Israeli ancestry and or a near by area. There is not one single place of origin. The Jews are first a religious group and then a culture. It is possible to convert to a religion in any area which would mean that there could be several places of origin according to logic.

  14. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Anthony Weber-Rice: None of the study’s authors claim that “Levantine” refers to Italians, nor do I. The study in question indicates that Levites originated in what historians call ancient Israel during a time period consistent with Jews’ historical claims. This supports other genetic studies indicating a similar geographic origin for Ashkenazi Jews. The Khazar theory has very poor genetic support. The Jewish religion has historically been a very difficult and demanding one to convert to, and numerous studies show that Ashkenazis (obviously there are exceptions) bear copious genetic signs of a common genetic ancestry. You’ve made a lot of assertions (above) for which you provide no supporting evidence. But of course you’re entitled to your opinions!

  15. Tondeleia Says:

    Levant: region on the E Mediterranean, including all countries bordering the sea between Greece & Egypt. It has always referred to Israel, never to Syria

  16. Stephen Says:

    love science, always spoils the party where a good story bears no relation to fact. Great blog thanks

  17. AspiringWriter. Says:

    love the punning between levite and levantine.
    I am surprised by the high degree of Italian mitochondrial DNA: why would you convert to Judaism in such difficult circumstances?

  18. Bruce Goldman Says:

    AspiringWriter: I believe the reasoning is that early Jewish communities in Italy (which undoubtedly precede a larger, forced immigration of Jewish laborers imported to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD) were largely seeded by Jewish male arrivals, who set up house with Italian women. So mitochondrial DNA, but not Y-chromosome DNA, bears evidence of significant Italian input. Prior to the Romans’ abolition of Israel and sacking of Jerusalem, prejudice against Jewish men may not have been high in Italy (and for all I know literate, fairly prosperous, relatively hygienic Jewish men may have been considered a good catch).

  19. Donald Stahl Says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article. But may I ask, how does “Jewish” transfer, in your vocabulary, down the male line?

  20. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Thanks back to you for the kind words, Donald Stahl, but I’m not sure I understand your question. For the purposes of this study (and my blog post), “Jewish” refers to a purely father-to-son genetic lineage, as transferred by the Y chromosome. (It’s a safe bet that the male Ashkenazis forming that line from its origin to the present, in the case of those analyzed in the study, was also solidly Jewish culturally and religiously throughout.) Does that answer the question you were asking?



  22. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Albert Knight, Although the researchers who are active in this field do have such markers in abundance, I can’t point you to any specific place for an overall “Hebrew heritage” analysis. However, at least one consumer-genomics company I’m aware of — 23andMe — that comes close, in that it does provide specific info as to the customer’s Ashkenazi (European Jewish) heritage. As for Mizrahi and Sephardic components, I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.

  23. greg Says:

    What about the black Jews in Africa who DNA traced all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses?

  24. Bruce Goldman Says:

    Yes, greg. That’s entirely consistent with the notion that most of the world’s Jews (not only Ashkenazis, Sephardim, and Mizrahi but also members of lost tribes such as have turned up in Ethopia, India, Burma and elsewhere) trace back to a common time (~3,500 years ago), a common place (ancient Israel/Judea) and – in some cases, such as the one you mention or the one described in the blog entry above – a common ancestor.


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